The Only Thing to Fear by Caroline Tung Richmond
Published by Scholastic, September 30, 2014. Hardcover of 280 pages at $17.99. Also available as an ebook. Intended for ages 12 and up; grades 7 and up.
The cover: A stark red cover featuring an eagle in profile whose feet are rounded off into an giant circle containing a photograph of the White House, which sports the Nazi flag, is this novel’s simple cover. The author’s name is barely visible at the top of the image, and also slightly unseen is the tagline at the bottom, “What if Hitler had won World War II?” It’s a very intense and cold cover, befitting the new rulers of America. Book design is credited to Phil Falco. Well done. Overall grade: A
The premise: From the inside front cover, “It’s been nearly eighty years since the Allies lost World War II in a crushing defeat against Hitler’s genetically engineered super soldiers. America has been carved up by the victors, and sixteen-year-old Zara lives a life of oppression in the Eastern American Territories. Under the iron rule of the Nazis, the government strives to maintain a master race, controlling everything from jobs to genetics. Despite her mixed heritage and hopeless social standing, Zara dares to dream of an America she’s only read about in banned books–a land of freedom and opportunity. Rumblings of a revolution are growing in the Territories, and a rogue rebel group known as the Alliance is plotting a deadly coup. Zara might hold the key to taking down the Fuhrer for good…but it also might be the very thing that destroys her. Because what she has to offer the Alliance is something she’s spent her entire life hiding from the world, under the threat of immediate execution by the Nazis. In this action-packed, heart-stopping novel of a terrifying reality that could have been, one girl must decide how far she’ll go in the name of freedom.” I am a huge fan of alternative history novels, especially by Harry Turtledove, so encountering one intended for teens is something I’m extremely interested in checking out. Overall grade: A
The characters: The protagonist of this story is Zara St. James, a mischling to the Nazis, a half breed of Japanese and English blood. Her parents were killed by the Nazis and she lives with her Uncle Red. Together they have been trying to eek out a life under the thumb of German rule. Zara has a secret that’s not revealed until about a quarter into the book, and it takes her and those she knows into new situations. She’s been trying to keep this secret hidden, but she no longer can, and in revealing it she could die. Uncle Red is the traditional father figure who begs her to stay hidden, she being the only family he has left. He has been beaten down by the Nazi regime. I was very happy to see that he does not remain this one note character and changes significantly as the book progresses. The villains of the piece are the Nazis in America, ruled by the grandson of Adolf Hitler, the current Fuhrer, Dieter Hitler. He rules from Berlin, but events cause him to come to the states. The local law is under the control of Colonel Eckhart, the traditional stock Nazi character who would sacrifice his family for the Fatherland. His son Bastian is a more immediate cause of concern for Zara because he seems interested in her and he is continually popping up where she least expects. He was a terrific addition to Zara’s fears, as he presents her with a conflict that is always itching at the reader’s head until close to the conclusion. There are several supporting characters that one would expect from a traditional WWII novel, with some having abilities more suited to a superhero movie. I found all very entertaining, with Zara being a particularly strong female character. Overall grade: A
The settings: Set in the 2024, this book could be set in the present day without any major differences, except that the Axis Powers have taken over the world. The historical background of this alternate history is very strong; as good as any adult historical fiction novel. I would have been pleased with author Richmond delving more into what’s happened in the world, but she doesn’t do this, instead giving just enough information to set up her characters and justify their actions. The history of this fiction is well done. The novel begins in Virginia and travels to different locations on the east coast. Saying specifically where would spoil the ending, but halfway through the book it’s obvious where the climax will occur. All the locations are vividly described, with a location in Chapter 15 being effectively chilling. Overall grade: A
The action: There is the expected war action of a poorly armed resistance fight against the might of the Nazi war machine, but things take a fanciful turn when Zara reveals her secret. I was glad that Richmond did not make Zara invulnerable. When she used her “ability” it weakened her, and she had to practice how to use it. This made the action to come much more believable and more frightening as she gained expertise. The ending of the novel is like a Hollywood blockbuster finale. Overall grade: A+
The conclusion: Things are wrapped up, but the door left wide open for a sequel. If there are more stories featuring Zara I would welcome them with open arms, but if this is to be her only outing, no reader will be left unfulfilled. Overall grade: A
The final line: An outstanding debut novel that will thrill readers of all ages. The battle to reclaim the United States inches closer to its goal with every page as Zara St. James encounters obstacles inside and out. I look forward to more from Caroline Tung Richmond. Overall grade: A
Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer’s Guide for several years with “It’s Bound to Happen!”, he reviewed comics for TrekWeb, and he currently reviews Trek comics at TrekCore. He’s taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for two years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.